Chris Bullock had a question: How do the finances of my town compare to other towns? The information was out there, buried in annual reports (if you could understand them) and sitting on spreadsheets (if you knew where to find them). Because of transparency in government initiatives, all this data was available to the public—but there were simply no mechanisms of discovery and dissemination.
After digging deep, Chris began to assemble some fascinating town by town comparisons and was able to present them in an easy, readable format. The towns got interested. The results became a tech startup, ClearGov.
Now they not only collect and disseminate data on local governments, they also provide these governments with the tools they need to organize their budgets, making it easier to share with their residents.
In this edition of UpTech Report, Chris tells the complete story of his investigation into local government finances and how it led to the founding of an intriguing startup that offers an important service.
More information: https://www.cleargov.com/
Chris Bullock, co-founder and CEO of ClearGov Inc., has over 20 years of product management, marketing and business development experience in data analytics and transparency-centric software services.
Prior to ClearGov Chris co-founded Sky Analytics (acquired by Huron Consulting Group), a legal analytics and benchmarking platform that revolutionized the legal industry. Before Sky Analytics, Chris spent 7 years as the Global Director of Product Development for Investor Relations & Analytics Software at NASDAQ and Shareholder.com.
Chris holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Chris Bullock 0:00
that really became the genesis of the idea was, what if we collected all this data and turned it into really easy to understand infographic based profiles?
Alexander Ferguson 0:17
Welcome everyone to UpTech Report, our apply tech series UpTech Report is sponsored by TeraLeap. Learn how to leverage the power of video at teraleap.io. My guest today very excited is joined by Chris Bullock, who’s based in Boston, CEO of ClearGov. Welcome, Chris. Hey. So your product is a financial management and transparency software for local governments. So for those out there, if you’re maybe a mayor on the town council, or anyone involved in finances in a local city or town, or maybe you think your local government should be more transparent, this might be an intriguing platform for you, Chris, I was looking at your site, and it said, Your budget is an order your financial data is easy to understand and your community trust is government. Welcome to clear gov. That almost sounds like a futuristic, I want that type of feeling that you stayed out curious, what was the problem you set out to solve with clear gov? And how has that changed over time?
Chris Bullock 1:12
Well, you know, I’ve somehow made a career for myself and data analytics and transparency and the the genesis of clear gov, I think it came from I think a question that a lot of people have just, you know, where am I property taxes are just where my taxes going in general, right. And being the data nerd that I am, I actually started researching. And I town I went to my town’s website. And particularly, I was interested in a an initiative that the town was trying to pass to build a new school, and they had to take on about $40 million in debt. And my son would be going to that school. And the the article kept on failing. So the town kept on voting it down. And so I was curious, how much debt does our town really have? Is this a big problem? I wanted my town’s website. And it turns out, they were being transparent. They had a 350 page and report on there in PDF form and about, you know, 250 pages deep, there were financials there. They were very confusing. There’s a lot of terminology, I didn’t get, you know, transfers between funds, and but I could see that there was about $70 million in debt in the town. And then my next question was, well, is that a lot? Or is that a little, you know, if most towns have $5 million in debt, then that’s a bad thing. And most towns have $500 million. And that’s not so bad. And so I started going down this path and looking at other cities, in the area, creating the spreadsheet, my wife thought I was crazy. But I eventually found that all the towns in Massachusetts, every year had to submit their finances to the Department of Revenue. And in a deep dark corner of the Department of Revenue’s website, there was this lonely Excel file that had all of their finances for every single town on there. And I thought, well, this is interesting. I’m wondering if other towns do this. And the more and more research I did, I found that many states are now opening their their finances and making this data available. And really, it was an initiative started in the Obama area, the era where they started making the the federal government more more transparent in many states followed through, but it felt like they were just taking this data and throwing it over the wall and say, You go do whatever you want, and no one was doing anything with it. So that really became the genesis of the idea was, what if we collected all this data, and turned it into really easy to understand infographic based profiles, where any resident can go onto our site, type in the name of their city or town, and not only see where the money is coming from and where it’s going to, but put that in context of other cities. So we break down all the spending and all the the taxes and revenues on a per capita basis, and then identify similar communities based upon population on values, commercialization, metrics, things like that. So you can find similar communities, and then compare those metrics. So when we launched the site, I could actually see that my town had 29% less debt on a per capita basis and similar communities in the area. And I thought, you know, that that’s just, you know, really interesting, that really kind of brought the conversation home to me. So we went out there and, you know, fast forward, you know, five or so years later, we’ve now built the world’s largest municipal financial database, and we have profiles on I think, maybe over 45,000 communities and including school districts across the country now, and it’s been really quite a success.
Alexander Ferguson 4:54
It 2015 You began Was that correct?
Chris Bullock 4:57
Yeah, started the company and 2015 Just as myself, and, you know, brought on a co founder in 2017, and raised some venture capital, verily, very shortly after their, that, and we’re off to the races,
Alexander Ferguson 5:15
I’m excited in the second part of interview, we’ll be diving deep for those who want to hear that, more of Chris’s story in the founding journey, stick around for part two of the interview, but to give a taste, when you when you started five years ago, if you could know one thing, five years ago that, you know, now, what would that one thing be?
Chris Bullock 5:35
Wow. You know, I really set out. And one of the reasons why I really wanted to build a company on my own was to be surrounded by, by people that, you know, I really respect and loved working with, you know, in many respects, you, you work with, the people you work with, you spend almost more time than, or their family. And so it’s really important to me to be surrounded by very smart, passionate and compassionate people. I say that all the time. And, you know, I the first you know, founding of the company, it was just me for a while and you know, eventually started bringing on a few people to help out with things like data, onboarding, and obviously coding and things like that. But, you know, one thing I really learned is, it’s really, really important to have that team and to build out that team. And, you know, bringing on my co founder, Brian Burdick was a big changing point, turning point in the company. And, you know, people just are really, really important. I think everyone says that all the time. But it’s really true, you’ve got to have the right people in place to really make the company hum, because without that, you just, you know, you’re standing on a weak foundation.
Alexander Ferguson 7:00
I’m excited to hear more of that, when we dive into that second part of our interview, coming back to the platform itself, the technology, how has that changed? And where is it today? What can you share how it’s maybe different from other offerings and solutions that exist?
Chris Bullock 7:16
Yeah, so I mean, we, we, we have evolved as a company from just a financial transparency platform, as, as we’ve learned that that town’s not only, you know, started sending us their budget, they wanted to share their forward looking budget, we learned that the way they were building their budget, and managing these finances internally was terribly outdated and antiquated. They were really using spreadsheets and word documents and email. And, you know, in the modern era of cloud computing, that’s just outmoded. And so we’ve really moved towards what we call a full budget cycle management platform, where we help them build their budget and manage their finances, from the beginning of their budget cycle, where they’re doing some long range capital planning, and then into their operational budget. And then communicating that budget. So the the transparency aspect of it becomes kind of that that final piece of the budget cycle, which is kind of a new way of looking at things. It’s not just, you know, kind of managing your budget and building your budget internally. It’s vault involving the the, the stakeholders. And I think that’s incredibly important. In today’s day and age, with the pandemic, where public meetings are no longer public, you know, how do you get the public involved? And how do you get that feedback and build trust and support? So I would say that, you know, I think one of our differentiators is this real kind of end to end platform that really helps them helps local governments build and manage a, their budget and their their finances from from start to finish in a in a really modern, cloud based platform.
Alexander Ferguson 9:01
It sounds like you setting out to solve the idea of transparency, you uncover kind of a deeper issue of overall management of finances and the full lifecycle. And that’s kind of where you’ve now invested in and I capture that correctly?
Chris Bullock 9:14
Yeah, definitely kind of the platform.
Alexander Ferguson 9:18
This solution. You’re working a lot with mayors and council, town managers and other individuals, if you had a word of wisdom for those individuals that just having dealt with them over the last several years. It could be around particularly maybe what your product does, but even broader, just dealing with them a word of wisdom, anything comes to mind.
Chris Bullock 9:40
What a reason for people dealing with. Okay, I think there’s a lot of mistrust in government. I just think that people have this view of government leaders as wasting our money not knowing what they’re doing and just big bureaucratic But you know, as I’ve met now with 1000s, of local government leaders, I mean, these are very smart, passionate, selfless people that are, are trying to do good, you know, trying to impact their community positively. And so, you know, I think once you get in front of these folks, you gain a whole new light, that they’re just like us. And it’s not just this big, kind of nefarious thing out there, that, you know, these are these are real, smart, passionate people. And in respect to
Alexander Ferguson 10:36
your business model, those who want to be able to take advantage of it, how does it work? Is it based on the size of the government, the number of seats, how does it work?
Chris Bullock 10:45
Sure. So we, we try to keep our pricing simple, we believe in simplicity, and a lot of aspects of our business, but we charge an annual license fee for a subscription fee for software based upon the different products. So we’ve got, you know, three, four or five different products now. And they the, they would pay an annual subscription fee and a a one time setup fee to onboard their data, get everyone in the system trained. And then we also have a sliding scale based upon the the size of the community, we don’t charge on a population basis, we actually charge on their, the the size of their their budget, you could have two towns that have the same number of people. But due to property taxes, you could have very, very different budgets, I’ll just say that. So we base the the annual subscription fee based upon this the size of the city’s budget,
Alexander Ferguson 11:48
that whole onboarding process, I imagine if they have all these financials all over the place, trying to get that and move to a whole new system that can be a roadblock for many. How do you guys handle that?
Chris Bullock 11:59
Yeah, so most communities out there now have an ERP accounting platform. And a lot of these platforms are still on premises. So they’re, they’re not cloud based. They’re a lot of these companies are transitioning to the cloud. But it’s slow. I mean, these are big, deeply rooted platforms. And so the advantage of our platform is it’s fully cloud based. And we can really sit on top of this ERP platform, we don’t need them to change anything, they can kind of plug right into our system, and take advantage of our budget cycle management platform right on top of their ERP platform. So the way that we connect is actually quite simple. We just ask them to export, or all the raw data from their accounting system into an Excel spreadsheet. And we built a platform, a machine learning, AI based platform that can ingest their data very, very quickly, and then displayed on our platform. So we’ve spent a lot of time and a number of years building that data ingestion system, and it’s quite unique,
Alexander Ferguson 13:08
that it speeds up your time and reduces the overall cost for you and the end clients for being able to get in using that machine learning.
Chris Bullock 13:16
It’s critical to scale. Really, we use machine learning to match or standardize, I’ll say, the client’s data because every city, they have their own accounting system and their own accounting structure. So none of them, maybe a few states have a bit more standardization than not, but most states and cities within those states, from one city, they’re not categorizing the data the same way. So it makes it very difficult to compare them from one city to one set to the next. So what we’re doing is really doing that standardization to make comparisons much easier as well.
Alexander Ferguson 13:59
What are you most excited about as far as a feature you just launched or, or a benefit that just is coming together that you want people to know about?
Chris Bullock 14:08
Yeah, no, we’re we’re about to launch a full new capital planning solution. So we’re really excited about that. That that, but really, what that means is right now, at the beginning of every budget cycle, a a community needs to get a better understanding of what are their big expenses for the next five or 10 years, right? They may need to spend a million dollars on a new fire engine, how are they going to finance that? So the communities really need to better understand what are those expenses coming up in the next 510 years? And so they’re doing a lot of that planning right now through Excel spreadsheets and just email and you know, conversations. So we built a full platform to, to to help automate that, collect that data, and then share that with the community. which is you know, the the other product that we actually just launched this earlier this year is called Digital budget book platform where I described earlier in the the interview, where folks were, most of these put out an annual report, that is as a as a printed document, and now they’ve converted it to PDF, but they’re generally hundreds of pages along, and it takes hundreds of hours to build those budget books. So recently, we also launched a platform that instead of making a printed budget book with a single click of a button actually creates a website around your budget, and allows people to, you know, peruse the the budget, in a much more interactive form. And for the finance teams, it helps them build their budget book and a fraction of the time. So I’d say those are two most exciting products out there, we’ve been focused on lately,
Alexander Ferguson 15:54
that latter one is nice, because there’s no extra time for them to be able to get it external for their folks to be able to view it’s just automatically created onto this website. Is that how it works?
Chris Bullock 16:05
Yeah, so they can build their budget in our system. And so we have all their data there. And so with a single click of a button, it creates, for instance, a page for every one of their departments, and all the graphs of all their spending, any revenues are bringing in all different angles, you’re visualized. So this is stuff that they would normally have to build an Excel. And it only takes them a lot of time to build that. But once they build it in a Word document, later on, if they have changed there, they make a change to the budget, they need to go to that document and find every chart, every table, every place that needs to be updated. And sometimes it’s just, you know, a percentage in a paragraph, they said, Hey, are, you know, we’re spending in the police department increased by 3.2%? Well, if they changed that in the budget, they need to find that instance in the paragraph that that changed. And so our software actually connects that paragraph and those charts to the data so that when they change the data, it changes the whole document.
Alexander Ferguson 17:05
How often does that happen, where some changes happened throughout the year after they set the budget?
Chris Bullock 17:11
I mean, it happens often. I mean, generally they’re they’re presenting their budget in several different forms, one would be a proposed form. And then once they propose it, there may be some changes before it reaches kind of adopted version. And then even after it’s adopted, they’ll make some changes and have an amended version, and sometimes multiple amendments.
Alexander Ferguson 17:31
A lot of time saved, ideally, you technology
Chris Bullock 17:35
a lot, a lot of time, I mean, we’ve literally had clients say to us, I’m buying the software, so I can spend more time with my family. I mean, it’s to that degree that they spend hundreds and if not 1000s of hours on these documents sometimes. So
Alexander Ferguson 17:53
it’s nice that you can have that effect allows folks to spend more time with their families. Ya know, it’s pretty neat. Looking forward and beyond then, on the roadmap, what can you share? Where do you want to be in five years from now and what you’re working towards?
Chris Bullock 18:09
So, it’s, it’s a tricky question, right? I mean, we definitely have a broader strategy in mind. I guess, maybe I’ll keep that a little bit private for competitive reasons. But But I will say that look, we are really, really maniacally focused on our client’s needs. And I think that is a real key to success. I mean, I’ve heard, even, you know, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, one of their main keys to success is just listening to their clients and focus on saving clients, you know, meeting their needs. And so I spend an enormous amount of time actually meeting with clients and meeting with prospects, talking to them listening to them. In frankly, the the clients and prospective clients, they give us our best ideas, and embarked on I mean, we’re, we’re constantly getting great ideas for them. And, and just then it’s a decision of, you know, which path do we follow? That’s the strategic end of it. So I think, you know, if if we just stay focused on building great software that solves our client’s problems, and building that great team to support that. The next five years, you know what, we’ll have a great company.
Alexander Ferguson 19:23
Thank you so much, Chris, for sharing your journey that you’re on the insights that you have gathered, and I’m excited to see where you guys go next. For those that want to learn more, you can go to Cleargov.com. And you can get a demo. It looks like that. Probably the first good step. Is that the best step for them to take?
Chris Bullock 19:39
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re happy to give anybody a walkthrough, especially if you’re a local government.
Alexander Ferguson 19:46
Awesome, and definitely check. stay around for part two of our interview where we’re gonna hear more about Chris’s story and the founding of clear graft. Thanks again for joining us on apply tech. We’ll see you guys next time. That concludes the audio version of this episode to see the original end more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company we should interview you can nominate them at UpTech report.com. Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you subscribe to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.